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From The Economist

Why do they do so well? Amy Hsin of the City University of New York and Yu Xie of the University of Michigan examined the progress of 6,000 white and Asian children, from toddlers through school, to find an answer. They rejected the idea that Asians were just innately much cleverer than whites: there was an early gap in cognitive abilities, but it declined to insignificance through school. Source

The use of "were" confuses me. Does it mean Asians were innately cleverer than whites (in the past), or Asians are innately cleverer than whites (as usual)?

It's used in a subordinate clause,does it have something to do with the past tense used in the main clause?

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You nailed it in your last sentence.

The default treatment of indirect speech is that the utterance attributed takes the same tense as the attribution:

John told me he liked beer.
John tells me he likes beer.

A past statement which affirms a fact taken to be still current at the time of attribution may be cast in the present tense:

John told me he likes beer.

but this is not required.

With regard specifically to reported academic "speech" there is something of a split between the sciences and the humanities. The humanities tend to express both the attribution and the statement in the present tense, as if the persons quoted were still "present" to the reader through their works, while the sciences tend to prefer the past tense for both.

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